We must give hope to working class Protestant boys
The poor achievement of working class Protestant boys in GCSE examinations revealed by a Community Relations Council report must be a wake-up call for the whole of society in Northern Ireland.
As one leading educationalist says in this newspaper today, these young boys may well become cannon fodder for loyalist paramilitary godfathers.
Coming from communities with few employment prospects, even the life of a gangster has its attractions.
The statistics are stark. Fewer than one in five Protestant boys who qualify for free school meals – an indicator of deprivation – go on to obtain five good GCSEs.
That puts them bottom of the education heap, apart from the children of Travellers or Roma parents.
So what can the future hold for them?
We know that our universities turn out more graduates than our economy can usefully employ at present.
Many of them leave for opportunities in other parts of the world.
But that freedom of choice is not available to those young people with few qualifications.
We need an holistic approach to the problem.
It is not just enough to call for more investment in working class Protestant areas, which already feel that they have not shared in the peace dividend.
Remember when Harland & Wolff gained a big order to refurbish an oil rig at the end of last year?
Only around one-third of the tradesmen required were available in Northern Ireland, with recruitment having to be spread to other areas with a tradition in shipbuilding to fill the gaps.
There is an urgent requirement for more apprenticeships and vocational education, so that those with manual skills can find an outlet for their talents.
Northern Ireland's economy needs rebalanced, but that means not just high value technical jobs, but also manufacturing.
Young working class Protestant boys need to be assured that they have a viable future and that life has more to offer than being a foot soldier for some paramilitary godfather, where the only home they will ever gain is a prison cell.